Wise Old Man Archetype (AKA The Obi-Wan)
By Jonathan Allen
The Wise Old Man, also known as the savior, redeemer and guru, is an archetype defined by Wilfred L. Guerin and others as the "personification of the spiritual principle, representing "knowledge, reflection, insight, wisdom, cleverness, and intuition on the one hand, and on the other, moral qualities such as goodwill and readiness to help, which makes his 'spiritual' character sufficiently plain..." The wise old man's purpose, relative to the confines of the story, is to help the hero of the work overcome an otherwise-insurmountable predicament; his purpose as a literary device, however, is as a means to compensate for the hero's deficiency at the task at hand, presenting the ability to overcome it as a personified form of knowledge. This is illustrated in William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation when he states, "When as by the travail and diligence of some godly and zealous preachers, and God's blessing on their labours, as in other places of the land, so in the North parts, many became enlightened by the Word of God and had their ignorance and sins discovered unto them, and began by His grace to reform their lives and make conscience of their was, the work of God was no sooner manifest in them but presently they were both scoffed and scorned by the profane multitude...," with Bradford presenting God in such an archetypal role.
Often in fiction, the Wise Old Man is killed off for the purposes of progressing the main character's arc or so that the author can eliminate the potential plot hole caused by a better, smarter good character existing but not doing anything to stop the overarching threat (i.e. the main villain). However, in something like a naturalist work, they can function as a personified, unheeded warning to the main character. A mild stretching of this concept could be applied to the dog in Jack London's To Build a Fire, illustrated by the dog's reluctance to press on in the cold whose true severity was unapparent to the man; a good example from that work is near the beginning when it states, "The dog dropped in again at his heels, with a tail drooping discouragement, as the man swung along the creek-bed. The furrow of the old sled-trail was plainly visible, but a dozen inches of snow covered the marks of the last runners. In a month no man had come up or down that silent creek. The man held steadily on." Wise Old Men can also take on more light-hearted tones as well, such as the seven dwarfs from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with 'men' being very apt in this case, as they all help Snow White to some degree with their wizened minds.
Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647. New York: Modern Library, 1981.
`A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 3d ed. ed., Wilfred L. Guerin [et al.] New York: Oxford University Press, 1992
London, Jack. "To Build a Fire." The World of Jack London. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs: A Tale from the Brothers Grimm. Translated by Randall Jarrell. Illus. by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.
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